Forge leaning on championship experience for 2020 CPL Final: ‘We know what’s at stake’

“Give me a path for how I can win a championship and I’ll figure out how to get there,” Forge coach Bobby Smyrniotis told reporters on Friday.

It’s far too early to use the word ‘dynasty,’ but there’s something about this Forge FC team.

On Saturday they’ll make a triumphant return to the CPL Final, 322 days after winning the league’s first championship in 2019. Over the two-year stretch of the club’s existence, nobody in the CPL has won more games, or lost fewer, than Forge — something Smyrniotis keenly pointed out.

Smyrniotis and a trio of Forge players sat (virtually) in front of the media the day before Saturday’s final, about an hour after the league revealed that, once again, three members of Forge have been nominated for the CPL’s year-end awards.

That both Smyrniotis and Kyle Bekker have earned nods for the Coach of the Year and Player of the Year trophies, respectively, two years running, speaks to the quality of the club that’s been built in Hamilton — and which is now firing on all cylinders in PEI.

The coach looked ahead to taking on HFX Wanderers FC in the final, anticipating an entertaining clash between teams with distinct styles of play. With both games between them at The Island Games having ended in 1-1 draws, it’s sure to be a close contest. Smyrniotis, though, hinted that he’s confident in his side’s championship pedigree.

RELATED READING: HFX Wanderers embrace their 1st CPL Final and Halifax fans: ‘We love you’

“These games help you because it’s not your first time in the environment to play for something that’s so important,” Smyrniotis said. “There’s two ways of looking at that, sometimes you go into a game and you have nothing to lose as a team. But sometimes it’s understanding the different pressure points that a game brings. The night before, the day of, it’s something we’ve dealt with with the championship last year.

“As coaches I think one of our biggest roles is the environment we create around the game. The environment of making sure the players are relaxed, and what we always want our players to know is on the best day they’re the best team. If you’re not on your best day there’s a very good team that’s gonna be on the other side of the field that’s ready to go, and they’ve got nothing to lose tomorrow.”

The Wanderers have played some very entertaining soccer in PEI, as a very direct counter-attacking side. Playing against their press has frustrated plenty of opponents in the last few weeks, including Forge at times. Still, Smyrniotis isn’t too worried, even though both of his team’s goals against HFX have been penalty kicks.

“They’re obviously a team that has a distinct way of playing, they’ll look at the counter attack, they’ll look to clog up the middle of the field,” Smyrniotis said. “When you’re playing on a smaller pitch like we’re playing over here in PEI, it’s a very effective way for a team to play. They’re a well-organized team. They know what they want in the field, they’re a very patient team. They’re a team that’s not very big on possession and having the ball, but more patient and waiting for their opportunities.”

He later added, on his team’s ability to score in this final: “We had 26 players play for this club in two years, and of those 26 players 21 have been on the scoresheet. We know we’re gonna get goals, we know that that’s gonna happen in the evolution of the game.”

Forge, who have scored more goals than any other CPL team at The Island Games, have managed to throw their opponents curveball after curveball with the way they set up their attack. They’ve never had the same front three, which makes it significantly more difficult for opposing teams to plan.

That’s partly by design, according to Smyrniotis.

RELATED READING: How do Forge and HFX Wanderers compare position by position?

“Having the belief in our front players is very important to us, and it’s worked out well for us in keeping most of the guys healthy throughout this event,” the coach said. “It keeps everyone sharp because on any given day we’re gonna need somebody in a different tactical role or in a different set against a different opponent, and that gives me the flexibility to be able to do that, and also keeps the opponent guessing a little bit.”

Above all, Forge is banking on their experience and their tried-and-true mindset to carry them through on Saturday to win another trophy. Even though it’s been an extremely short season, under very strange circumstances, there’s no damper on the championship atmosphere.

“The fact of the matter is it’s still a final and we’re still playing for a championship so there is that heightened buzz around the hotel right now,” Forge captain Kyle Bekker offered. “The guys can feel it and we know what’s at stake tomorrow.

“We have a core group that’s been lucky enough to have that experience before and it’s something we’ll need to lean on (vs. HFX).”

Above all, though, Smyrniotis is banking on Saturday’s final being a fantastic heavyweight bout. The coach pointed out that the spectacle in store for us in the final is sure to be a massive demonstration for the CPL, with the game broadcast nationally on CBC and with two quality, entertaining teams involved.

“You have the two teams who have done it best in this tournament who are gonna face off, and you have two teams who are a little bit contrasting in styles,” he said. “Both styles work and both styles are very good, and that’s the beauty of this game. I think to the football purists, the ones that really like the tactics, it’s gonna be an excellent game. I think to the casual observer, it’s gonna be an excellent game because it’s a championship final.”

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